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July 15, 2016

Minding Your P’s and Q’s: the Rules of Writing

by Byddi Lee

There are rules we must follow when we write in order to make it readable. That may seem pretty obvious, but some people believe that if they can talk they can write. It’s not the same thing. The rules for writing are more rigid. Yes, there are writers out there who have successfully skirted around, bent or broken these rules. In order to break the rules and get away with it, you need to know them well. It also helps if you are extremely well known and extremely talented. A beginner writer is, at best, only one of those things.

In order to get to grips with grammar, I needed to revisit the terminology. Coming from a science background, I can tell you, in molecular detail, how a leaf photosynthesizes, but I have trouble remembering what an adverb is. Bringing it back to very simple terms, here’s how I keep it all straight.

Parts of Speech

A noun is a naming word – a place, person or a thing. A verb is a doing word. The subject of a sentence is what is doing the verb. An adjective is a describing word. An adverb is used to modify another word. For example, the adverb “quickly” can be used with the verb “run.” Most, though not all, adverbs end in “ly” and writers are advised to avoid using these.

Proper Puncuation

It does help to develop your own writing style, but the basics needs must be met. Every sentence needs to begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop, exclamation mark or question mark. That may seem like a very basic place to begin, but I’ve often seen writers flounder in simply writing a sentence containing those two elements. I think the reason why boils down to the fact that we learn this so early on in our school careers that many have forgotten these fundament requirements. In everyday speech we are not aware of how a sentence is set out. Even while critiquing experienced writers, I have at times needed to remind someone to start with a capital letter and end on a period.

One thing I was guilty of at the beginning was the overuse of exclamation marks. It was as if every sentence was shouting out at the reader demanding attention!

Sentence Structure

So what else does a sentence need? Aside from the correct punctuation, at the very least, a sentence also needs at least one main clause. A clause needs a verb and a subject that forms a complete thought that makes sense. Building up from this, you can join clauses to make compound sentences, and group them to make complex sentences. Writers should avoid run-on sentences where two or more complete clauses are joined without adequate punctuation.

Commas are part of this punctuation team and a complete minefield for writers. Comma use is a whole post on its own, but I will mention conjunctions – words used to join two or more words, phrases or clauses. There are a limited number of these words and they are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so – easily remembered by the acronym FANBOYS.

You use a comma before a conjunction if the two clauses could be written as a simple sentence on its own. For example:

I ran away and joined the circus.

I ran away, and I joined the circus.

Mind the Tense

Mistakes using tense are another thing I see a lot when critiquing. A writer needs to choose a tense to write in and then stick to it. Typically the tenses most written in are past and present,  the later becoming more popular now especially in the Young Adult genre. It is not impossible to write entire stories in other tenses, though future tense might be considered quite experimental.  Often past perfect tense is used to bookend flash backs to que the reader as to when the flash back begins and when it ends. For example:

Mary had been happy that day. She came home from school… this section can be written in past tense …but the dog died and she had never gotten over it.

Point of View

The point of view (POV) in a story is also worth considering carefully before you begin.

The first person POV can be very effective in conveying the narrator’s emotional state. The drawback is that you cannot tell the story from any other person’s perspective, so some of the elements of the story might be harder to convey.

With a third person POV you can be in more than one person’s head, though switching between those POVs requires skill. Suddenly changing to the POV of another character is very jarring and needs to be done using text breaks or between paragraphs at the very least. It is better not to have too many different POVs within a story.

In older literature the writers tended to have an omniscient POV, telling the story with a broad overview. Whatever style you choose, be consistent for that story.

Tools of the Trade

Many of us use software that helps us to spell words and even correct grammar – up to a point. This will only carry us so far, but it is a start. We are lucky to live in an age when information is literally at our finger tips. We can quite literally Google anything we want. Try Googling “How to write a sentence” and see what you discover. “What not do when writing” is a great search that will help you avoid the pitfalls. Or you can be very specific and ask about the “Oxford comma.” I’ve found Google extremely useful when I’ve gotten confused between the rules of British English and American English.

Your biggest learning tool in writing is reading. Observe how other writers put words together, use grammar and avoid problematic pronouns.

Remember that knowing the technicalities behind turning words and punctuation into sentences and paragraphs is only a subset of the tools you need as a writer. Grammar and punctuation is easy to learn and the information and answer to your questions is out there. Take heart if at first your work is coming back to you after a critiquing session covered in red-pen marks inserting commas, full stops and capital letters! The only way to improve is to keep reading and keep writing.

Byddi Lee, features writer. Byddi grew up in Armagh, Ireland, and moved to Belfast to study Biology at Queen’s University when she was 18. She made Belfast her home for twenty-one years, teaching science and writing for pleasure. In 2002 she took a sabbatical from teaching and traveled round the world for two years, writing blogs about her adventures as she went. She returned to Ireland in 2004 and resumed teaching. In 2008 she and her husband moved to San Jose, California where she made writing a full-time career. After the publication of her short story, Death of a Seannachai, she decided it was time to write, March to November. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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  1. This is such useful info. Many thanks for sharing your expertise with us!

  2. Very helpful for aspiting writers :-)

    1. It is worth a wee revision every now and again!

  3. Very good post. The creation of ebooks has not only given us some good works by people who might otherwise go unpublished, but opened the flood gates to very poor quality work. Any little bit helps.

    1. Absolutely! Keeping the standard high in self publishing is really important.

  4. Thanks for dusting those essential advice for writing! Sometimes we're so focused on delivering that we forget to take care about such details!

    1. I agree! When excited about a character/concept/plot line sometimes it's easy to let the basics slide.

  5. Advice for beginners. Thanks for sharing!